So rarely does a week 1 game live up to the 7-8 months of hype it receives during the preceding off season.
This is especially the case when you consider the prior season both the Houston Cougars and Oklahoma Sooners had leading into this 2016 opening week showdown. The expectations were sky high, and that might even be underselling it.
The game had everything: 2 exciting quarterbacks, one of college football’s blue bloods coached by a future hall of famer and an exciting upstart that loudly announced their presence with a New Year’s 6 bowl win the previous year.
And if all that wasn’t enough, this game would be the first one most of the college football public tuned into during the opening time slot of the season’s first Saturday.
Somehow, the game still far outpaced even optimistic expectations.
Leading into the Game:
Because this was an opening week game you couldn’t exactly predict what either team would look like. But there was enough returning talent that both groups of fans probably believed they had a good idea.
Out of nowhere the 2015 Cougar team with 1st year head coach Tom Herman and returning veterans like Greg Ward Jr, Elandon Roberts, William Jackson III, DeMarcus Ayers and many others had gone 13-1, won the AAC and stomped Florida State in the Peach Bowl.
The new staff inherited a surprising amount of talent on both sides of the ball, considering how much the Coogs underachieved (at least offensively) under the previous coaching staff. In Ward, Herman had a dual threat QB who was a perfect fit for the power spread concepts Herman had developed in over a decade as OC at Rice, Iowa State and Ohio State.
Ward was not only a great runner (something he’d flashed after taking the starting job in 2014) but in the new offense showed he could be an accurate passer with a near superhuman ability to avoid pressure from opposing defenders.
His supporting cast played a pretty significant role as well, with Ayers being the go-to receiver throughout the 2015 season. Going into 2016, a big question was figuring out who would replace Ayers’ production among returners like Steven Dunbar, Linell Bonner III and Chance Allen.
The last assistant hire Herman made: defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, was a massive success. Orlando, who previously held DC positions at UConn, FIU and Utah State, kept the aggressive style of his predecessor David Gibbs and put his own unique imprint on the Cougar defense.
Maybe the most critical player on the defense in Orlando's 1st year was previous career backup Elandon Roberts. In his one year as a starter Roberts set the tone from his middle linebacker position and was drafted by the New England Patriots the following spring.
In addition to Roberts, the Coogs were going to have to figure out life without graduated defensive mainstays like Jackson (the Cincinnati Bengals 1st round pick), Adrian McDonald and Trevon Stewart. Like the offense, there were interesting players returning who could fill in at those positions. The defense was also getting the biggest recruit in program history: Ed Oliver.
Oliver, a defensive lineman and consensus 5-star recruit from Westfield High on Houston’s north side, created national attention when he committed to and eventually signed with the Coogs despite having offers from every big-name program.
The fact that this new staff had such a good opening season and a grand vision of the 'H-Town Takeover' probably sealed the deal with Oliver. But the biggest part of Ed’s decision to play at UH always was about playing with his older brother Marcus, a Cougar offensive lineman.
But the Cougars, if possible, weren’t even the team with the most unrealistic expectations coming into this game. Like their opponents, the Oklahoma Sooners had a surprise 2015 coming off a disappointing 2014.
Baker Mayfield, a walk-on at both Texas Tech and Oklahoma, won the starting QB job over returner Trevor Knight and thrived in Air Raid wunderkind OC Lincoln Riley’s new offense. Other than a no show against the cow college in Red River Shootout week the Sooners had no other blemishes in their 2015 regular season.
That 11-1 record was good enough to get the Sooners into the playoff as the #4 seed, where they fell 37-17 to Clemson.
It was a frustrating finish after an incredible year, but Mayfield returned along with key offensive players like Samaje Perine, Joe Mixon and Dede Westbrook. The defensive quality had dipped a bit compared to vintage Bob Stoops coached OU teams, but the Sooners D would be more talented than nearly anyone the Coogs had seen recently.
There have been more than a few highly anticipated season openers just in my decade plus following Cougar football, and yet none of them compared to this one.
Getting Oklahoma to agree to play one game in Houston and one game in Norman meant the first game in Houston would not be at the friendly confines of TDECU Stadium, but at a slightly more neutral NRG Stadium.
On principle I have never been a fan of regular season games being played in pro venues. But having the game off campus was a worthwhile trade off to get a brand name like the Sooners to come to Houston. I remember entering NRG around 40 minutes to kickoff and being concerned about the amount of Sooner crimson in the stands as compared to Cougar red.
In true Houston fashion though, the stadium filled with red-clad Cougar fans just before the game kicked off.
If you want an example of why you shouldn’t overreact to a bad opening drive, or even a bad 1st quarter, this game is a pretty good one. Just on the opening drive the Sooners rushed for 58 yards, including a 32-yard TD run from Joe Mixon on his first carry of 2016.
The Coogs answered with a 10-play drive of their own that stalled out in the Sooner red zone and ended with a Ty Cummings field goal.
When Mixon took a screen pass 60 yards on the Sooners’ first play of their next drive things were starting to look a bit dicey. That momentum changed when Mayfield took off on 3rd down & short and Cougar linebacker Matthew Adams delivered a thunderous hit that stopped his opponent 3 yards short and forced a field goal.
At this point the Sooners were up 10-3, but that red zone stand by the Cougar defense felt like real progress and maybe even a shift in the game’s momentum.
On a 13-play drive that ended up carrying into the beginning of the 2nd quarter the Coogs once again got into the red zone but had to settle for another Cummings field goal.
Another highlight reel hit came on the opening play of the next Sooner drive as safety Garrett Davis stopped Samaje Perine a yard short of the 1st down marker with a punishing hit. Perine would be sidelined much of the remainder of the game and the Sooners went 3 and out on this possession.
After coming so close on their first 2 drives, the Coogs finally got 6 points from a trip into the red zone. Earlier in the drive a 44-yard completion from Ward to backup Isaiah Johnson rescued the Coogs from 2nd and very long. Only 2 plays later Ward found his new RB Duke Catalon, who slipped out of the backfield unnoticed for a 15-yard TD.
The Coogs had their first lead of the game, but 4 plays later Mayfield found his tight end Mark Andrews for a 64-yard TD to give the Sooners a 17-13 lead.
In the remainder of the 2nd quarter the Coogs managed 2 more field goals (the last drive featuring an absurd Linell Bonner III sideline reception) and held the Sooners to a 3 and out, going into halftime up 19-17. Even with a slim lead, it was good to see the Coogs go into the locker room not feeling like the team had played its absolute best.
The 3rd quarter started with the Coogs’ first 3 and out of the game, which led to the debut of 27-year old Australian punter Dane Roy. The next drive saw Ed Oliver sack Mayfield and catch the Sooners’ star receiver Westbrook from behind after a 16-yard game. Cougar fans were getting their first glimpses of the otherworldly talent and motor they’d see a bunch of for the next 3 seasons.
Eventually, the Sooner offense stalled out at the Cougar 36 and Austin Seibert was sent out to attempt a 53-yard field goal. The Coogs sent starting cornerback and return specialist Brandon Wilson to the end zone due to the length of this attempt.
Seibert was short on his kick and Wilson caught the ball at the very back of his own end zone under the uprights. About 30 yards out of the end zone it was clear Wilson might have a chance to take this return to the other end zone and he went nearly untouched 100 yards for a Cougar touchdown.
The scenes in NRG Stadium were pandemonium as Cougar fans couldn’t believe what they had just witnessed. The game had gone from being one where the Sooners looked poised to take a lead to one where the Coogs now had a 2-score lead.
On the 2nd play of the next Sooner drive Mayfield showed off his unbelievable scrambling ability to escape multiple defenders and find Jarvis Baxter for a 1st down, but Matthew Adams stripped Baxter and the Coogs had the ball back.
Ward would complete 5 of 7 passes on the next Cougar drive, including 2 on 3rd down and drew a pass interference on another 3rd down. Tight End Tyler McCloskey would snag Ward’s final completion for a 2-yard TD to put the Coogs up 33-17.
It’s not as if many Cougar fans (yours truly included) didn’t believe the Coogs could win this game, but going up 16 near the end of the 3rd quarter really made that feel real for all of us wearing red that afternoon.
The Sooners, still only down 2 scores at this point, would get back into Cougar territory but Tyus Bowser strip sacked Mayfield and the fumble was recovered by fellow senior Cam Malveaux. No Cougar scoring followed, but the Sooners were starting to press and run out of time.
But the Cougar defense was locked in by now and the Sooners didn’t get another 1st down on their next possessions, culminating in Steven Taylor stripping the ball from Mayfield on a 4th & long.
From this point on the only scoring was a perfunctory Sooner TD on their final possession of the game and the Coogs were 33-23 winners over the #5 Sooners.
Ward finished the day with 321 passing yards and Ed Oliver tied for the team lead in solo tackles (5) and sacks (2) in his first collegiate game. Mayfield would have 323 passing yards to his name but was also sacked 5 times and fumbled the ball twice.
The Cougars were victorious for the 14th time in 15 games. They entered this game as the sport’s underdog darlings and somehow left with an even higher profile. Speaking from personal experience it was hard to not feel like the rest of the schedule was a ‘cake walk’ until Louisville in late November.
The rest of the schedule was not a cake walk until Louisville.
Ward would play the 2016 season with the awful combination of lingering injuries and behind a leaky offensive line. The Cougar defense was still above average by any metric, but untimely suspensions (Steven Taylor vs. Navy) and injuries (Tyus Bowser for much of October and November) made them a bit more human.
Off the field, it became clear that the Big 12 had no interest in adding any school and UH’s future would remain in the AAC. The Coogs saw their hopes of returning to an NY6 bowl and returning to the conference title game also dashed with conference losses to Navy and SMU.
Much of the 2nd half of the 2016 season was filled with unsubtle whispers and hard to believe denials from Herman about his future.
Ironically, the dreams of playing Louisville on national TV and watching the Cougar defense dominate Louisville and Lamar Jackson in front of a big, ravenous crowd at TDECU Stadium actually came true. But the Coogs’ 2nd win over a top 5 opponent didn’t come with anything other than pride.
Even with the rest of the 2016 not exactly living up to the out sized expectations we all had, the Oklahoma win was the standard by which all subsequent marquee non-conference wins will be judged by.